Naturally, when someone we love passes away we mourn, our hearts aching with the loss, stricken and saddened at their departure. What we really miss, though, is love.
We receive no greater gift in this world than selfless love from someone else. When the source of that love departs and leaves us behind, we grieve. We feel the absence of their love acutely, and it tears a hole in our hearts.
The Baha’i writings say “The greatest gift of man is universal love—that magnet which renders existence eternal.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 111.
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know that love really does “render existence eternal”—because real love persists even after the loved one has moved on to the next stage of existence, leaving the rest of us behind on this physical plane.
Today, Baha’is will feel that love and loss, as followers of Baha’u’llah all over the world observe the anniversary of the passing of Abdu’l-Baha, who winged his flight to the kingdom of eternity 97 years ago.
Abdu’l-Baha left a global legacy of great service and selfless devotion to the Baha’i teachings of peace, love and unity. In an informal talk he gave to a group of college students more than a century ago, Abdu’l-Baha defined what such a loving legacy might look like. Inadvertently, he described his own legacy:
Man must so live that he may become beloved in the sight of God, beloved in the estimation of the righteous ones and beloved and praised by the people. When he reaches this station the feast of eternal happiness is spread before him. His heart is serene and composed because he finds himself accepted at the threshold of His Highness, the One. His soul is in the utmost felicity and bliss even if he be surrounded by mountains of tests and difficulties. He will be like unto a sea on the surface of which one may see huge white waves, but in its deeps it is calm, unruffled and undisturbed. If he trusts his happiness to worldly objects and fluctuating conditions he is doomed to disappointment. Should he gain a fortune and anchor his happiness to that he may hypnotize himself into a state of so-called joy for a few days, and then that very fortune will become a mill-stone around his neck, the cause of his worry and melancholy.
But if he lives in accordance with the good-pleasure of the Lord he will be favoured at the court of the Almighty. He will be drawn nigh unto the throne of Majesty. He will be respected by all mankind and loved and honoured by the believers. This fortune bestows eternal happiness. The tree of this fortune is ever green. The autumnal wind does not sear its leaves nor does the frost of winter rob it of its perennial freshness. This is a happiness which is not followed by any misery but is always a source of gratefulness and blessedness. The most great, peerless gift of God to the world of humanity is happiness born of love … – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 7, pp. 101-103.
At 77 years of age, a prisoner and exile most of his life and one of the world’s most beloved public figures, Abdu’l-Baha died on November 28, 1921. The leader of the Baha’i community, born Abbas Effendi and fondly called The Master; the son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, and the center of his Covenant; dearly respected and revered around the world for his service to humanity and his fervent advocacy for peace and unity; knighted by the British Empire for his work feeding the poor and averting famine in Palestine during World War I; he passed peacefully into the next world at 1 a.m.
His passing unleashed an avalanche of profound distress and grief, not just for the Baha’is but for everyone who knew him or knew of him, for believers in every religion and those with no religion. Abdu’l-Baha’s funeral did what he had taught in life, bringing together even the famously fractious Holy Land, drawing mourners and admirers from every Faith, race, background and class. A great sense of loss and grief gripped everyone, and its intensity united them. In the Holy Land, Abdu’l-Baha’s unprecedented impact, and the outpouring of emotion that accompanied it, resulted in a funeral the likes of which no one had ever seen.
Abdu’l-Baha’s simple funeral service and burial took place the day after his passing—Tuesday, November 29th, 1921—on the slope of Mount Carmel in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel).
No one had ever seen anything like it. Thousands upon thousands of people walked up the mountain to pay their respects. “A great throng,” the British High Commissioner of Palestine wrote, “had gathered together, sorrowing for His death, but rejoicing also for His life.”
The Governor of Jerusalem said “I have never known a more united expression of regret and respect than was called forth by the utter simplicity of the ceremony.”
Journalists estimated more than ten thousand people attended: Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Armenians, Europeans, Americans, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans, Muslims, Druze and Baha’is, government officials and clergy and the wealthiest and the poorest, all there to show their deep respect for the man one newspaper called “The Personification of Humanitarianism.” Mourning, moaning and lamenting, the huge crowd collectively felt such a deep sense of loss that many attendees struggled mightily with their emotions.
They had reason to grieve. The assembled mourners had lost someone so unique and so humble, so wise and selfless and dedicated to the service of others, that they feared they had lost something irreplaceable, something enormously precious, not just a man but a truly heroic and transcendent soul. Many in that gigantic crowd literally owed their lives to Abdu’l-Baha, either from the generous donations he had given the poor for decades or from the grain he had stored to feed the starving people of Palestine during what they called “The Great Woe,” the long period that World War I had cut their country off from food supplies.
An old saying claims that you can judge a man by the tears shed at his funeral. If that is true, then Abdu’l-Baha’s interment produced one of the most spontaneous, profound and public outpourings of tears, affection, warmth and tenderness the Holy Land had ever seen—and proved Abdu’l-Baha’s teaching that love lasts eternally.